Writing and the Creative Life: Wherein I embrace my messy desk!

Albert Einstein’s desk

For decades, I have waged a relentless war. The battlefield? My desk. Raised a military brat and a Southern Baptist to boot, the message I received on an almost daily basis was to keep my desk tidy. Organized. A place for everything and everything in its place. Cleanliness next to Godliness.

That was my training. However there is also my instinct, where the roiling chaos of my thoughts spills out into external world and onto my desk, resulting in stacks of papers here… piles of articles there… pens… paper clips… index cards… to-do lists… little reminder notes plastered on all surfaces. Basically looking like this:

And so the war plays out: The state of my desk will get so messy, my inner neatnik will rise up and assault the piles. I slash! I toss! I burn! Eventually I manage to get my desk to look something like this:

And I feel good about myself… for awhile. Then over time, the piles, the stacks, the clutter returns. This war goes on and on and on, back and forth, one extreme to the other, forever crossing my imaginary Maginot line with the predominance of the time spent in Messy Land… and with it an accompanying sense of Protestant shame.

But hallelujah, the heavens have opened and I have been saved by this divine revelation:

Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain. What is one thing these three visionaries have in common?

They all had very messy workspaces.

These three game-changers were never ones to follow the crowd, and always enjoyed doing things their own way. We can see this by how unconventionally disorganized their desks are. There was a method to this madness: under the mass of papers, magazines, and various objects, there is a sense of organization only the creator can operate through.

This from an article: “Why You Should Have a Messy Desk.” Ah, the glory! “Messy Desk” coupled with the word “Should.” I don’t have to be Anti-Messy, rather the word has come from on high that I should be Pro-Messy!

Indeed, the article shows several photographs of successful entrepreneurs — Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Tony Hsieh (Zappos), Mark Levchin (Paypal) — all of whom have unkempt, unruly, and unorganized desks.

In fact, if you look at the first photo featured above, that is a shot of Einstein’s desk! Dude put chaos theory into action! And he had zero problem with it. In fact he’s quoted as saying this:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Apparently there’s even hard science behind this. From the article:

Recently, a study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that people with a messy desk were more prone to creativity and risk taking, while people at cleaner desks tended to follow strict rules and were less likely to try new things or take risks. Dr. Vohs and her co-authors conclude in the study, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.”

OMG! “Disorderly Environments”… “Inspire”… “Fresh Insights”! Armed with this information, I can sense how the balance of power has shifted mightily! This is a war I can win. In fact, just looking at the current disheveled state of my desk, apparently, I am already the victor! As the article concludes:

Starting at very early ages, we have been trained to clean up our toys and make our beds. But perhaps our mothers had it wrong. As you can see from the examples above, messy environments can enhance our creativity by letting our lives get a little messy.

From now on, I have adequate ammunition to shoot down the foot soldiers of my anal retentive army by embracing my Outer Mess… because that is an expression my Inner Creativity.

And those old Protestant instincts? I’d say in response, this article is positively… Messy-Anic.

For the rest of the article, go here.

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